The Silk Road
1988 Directed by Junya Sato. Starring Koichi Sato, Toshiyuki Nishida, Anna Nakagawa, Yoshiko Mita, Takahiro Tamura.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Aug. 7, 1992
This Chinese-Japanese co-production set in 11th century China uses a fictional story to explain one of the world's archaeological mysteries: the Thousand Buddha Caves near Dun-huang in northwestern China, located close to the ancient trade route known as the “Silk Road.” Covered by desert sands for centuries, this group of man-made caverns was discovered in 1900, yielding a treasure of ancient Chinese books, scrolls, drawings, paintings, and sutras (writings on Buddha). As told in The Silk Road, which is adapted from a 1959 Japanese novel, this wealth of history was hidden in those caves for posterity by a young scholar, Zhao Zingde, a young man who seizes the opportunity to do something great after a sequence of random events has deprived him of his destiny. Although it aspires to be a sweeping epic, The Silk Road falls short; all the elements are there -- romance, politics, history -- but it never realizes the visual and emotional grandeur of a David Lean or Akira Kurosawa film. Only the battle scenes, depicted as bloodthirsty and chaotic, come anywhere near the spectacle of something like Lawrence of Arabia or Ran. (A nighttime battle confrontation, a symphony of flaming arrows arching over the walls of the embattled Dun-huang, is especially arresting.) The film's script also moves a little too quickly, particularly in the first 30 minutes when so many things happen to Zingde that you can't fully comprehend them. The performances by a Japanese cast are uniformly good, although occasionally exaggerated. In particular, as the commanding officer who befriends Zingde and ultimately becomes his ally, Nishida is a strong presence, even if he is sometimes guilty of overacting. If all of The Silk Road had matched his performance, it might have achieved the grandeur that eludes it. As it is, it's only as memorable as the two hours of its duration.